The final day of New Orleans Saints minicamp practices came to a very lowkey ending. With a heat wave threatening and packed crowd of fans, head coach Sean Payton decided to let his players off half an hour early to rest and regroup before starting training camp at the end of July.
Plenty of progress was made in practice this week, and nobody may have benefited more than linebacker/defensive back Erik Harris. Harris played with fan-favorite Delvin Breaux in the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tigercats, and now they’re reunited in Breaux’s hometown. Harris has previously been seen as intriguing but a sleeper to make the team. Expectations should be higher for him now that he’s shown what he can do against NFL athletes.
I was finally able to see the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Harris play with my own eyes, and thankfully, he left a great impression. Harris is very quick for a man of his size; on one play early in practice, running back Mark Ingram caught a pass out of the backfield and took off streaking down the sideline.
Ingram outran everyone except Harris, who crossed the field faster than anyone else and put hands on Ingram as a “tackle” and stopped the play. That’s as physical it gets in June, but Harris showed all the traits you look for: length, agility, and intelligence. If he had taken a poor pursuit angle he wouldn’t have caught Ingram no matter how fast he ran.
For now, Harris has climbed his way into the starting lineup in light of a long-lasting injury to free-agency bust Jairus Byrd. The Saints started team drills with a package featuring Harris and two other big safeties in Roman Harper and Kenny Vaccaro. Another play saw Harper exit in favor of rookie Vonn Bell, who is a lighter ballhawk compared to Harper’s bruiser skills set. Harris may have the versatility to contribute in both sets.
Other than Harris, the standouts of practice were probably second-year receiver Willie Snead and rookie running back Daniel Lasco. Both players got involved on special teams with Snead fielding some punts and Lasco working as a gunner on punt coverage.
They also caught everything thrown their way, with Snead doing best of all the receivers on a drill emphasizing dragging their toes in the end zone on a difficult reception. Lasco’s athletcism was on full display on two plays; one where he took a handoff and juked a tackling Kenny Vaccaro before flashing upfield for a big gain, and another where he made a one-handed catch away from his body on the sideline and stayed inbounds to pick up more yards. Lasco looks like someone ready to outplay his draft status (he was picked in the last round of this year’s draft) and contribute immediately.
A couple of quick notes:
- Rookie center Jack Allen (Michigan State) was one of the first players on the field, and he spent 20 minutes before practice working on “shotgun” snapping to a coach.
- Two veteran defensive ends tried out this week in Matt Shaughnessey (Arizona Cardinals) and Darryl Tapp (Detroit Lions), but it’s not clear yet if either will officially sign with the Saints.
- Erik Harris, who I talked about earlier, was the fourth player to take the field for practice. He also went straight from working on covering punts to running with the first-team defense. His work ethic is impressive.
- Second-year quarterback Garrett Grayson has a lot of work to do. He seemed to struggle to set his feet and throw with lower-body strength, and he’s got a weird release. The ball seems to slide out of his hand rather than launch, leading to inaccurate passes.
- Defensive ends Davis Tull and Obum Gwacham were working off to the side before practice with left tackle Terron Armstead, developing hand-placement on pass-rush moves.
- Running back Tim Hightower was working hard to learn a new skill. He struggled yesterday to reel in a pass on an out route, but today was practicing running the route and securing the ball next to his ribs by rehearsing the movement. It’s always interesting to see veterans like him continue work on the nuances of the game.
- Young receivers R.J. Harris, Michael Thomas, and Tommylee Lewis made impressive catches in jump-ball drills.
- Veterans Drew Brees, Cameron Jordan, Mark Ingram, and Keenan Lewis were some of the last players to hit the field; maybe they were having a quick meeting before practice?
Other than that, there wasn’t much to see in practice today. The coaching staff kept things lowkey but productive. There wasn’t the organized chaos or constant yelling across football fields we’ll see in training camp. We’ve got a while to wait, but for now the Saints’ arrow is pointing up as they exit minicamp practices.